Commentary: As UGA struggles, chemistry carries Carolina

Bulldogs arrive Friday, but not with an Omaha-worthy squad

nwhite@thestate.comMay 9, 2013 

USC third baseman Chase Vergason

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com

Want a comparison to show how dominant the USC baseball program has been over the past 13 seasons?

Take a look at next-door neighbor Georgia, a team that rolls into Carolina Stadium this weekend for a three-game series.

The Bulldogs have reached seven NCAA tournaments in the same span, as well as the College World Series in 2004, 2006 and 2008. But starting with the 2010 season, the Bulldogs have gone 98-123 — including 18-28 this season — which will conclude with them not reaching the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years.

The Gamecocks, on the other hand, have won at least 40 games and reached the NCAA tournament for 13 consecutive seasons, something no other SEC team has done.

USC won more overall games and conference games during that span than every other SEC team, advanced to 10 Super Regionals and made six College World Series appearances. including back-to-back national championships under coach Ray Tanner in 2010 and 2011.

“What the University of South Carolina has been able to do from a consistency standpoint over the last 13 or 14 years is one of the better runs in the history of this league,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “What Coach Tanner was able to do was incredible. I’m lucky to be a part of it.”

Holbrook assisted Tanner the previous four seasons before taking over the program last summer when his boss was elevated to athletics director. In his first season at the helm, Holbrook has guided his team to a 34-14 mark with two weeks left in the regular season. It looks to be a lock for a 14th straight NCAA tournament bid.

But what the Gamecocks have made look easy isn’t that simple.

Holbrook points out that even a national powerhouse like LSU, with its six national championships since 1991, can slip. Two seasons after winning the title in 2009, the Tigers missed an NCAA bid.

“A year or two ago, it happened to LSU. Georgia has gone through some tough times,” Holbrook said. “No team in this league is immune to a difficult stretch because of how difficult the league is.”

The state of Georgia is loaded annually with some of the top talent in the country, and the Bulldogs’ program isn’t that far from the East Cobb baseball complex in the Atlanta area, which hosts the most elite travel teams and players nationally each summer.

Yet they have stumbled in recent seasons while the Gamecocks, who have benefitted from their two titles and a $36-million stadium, keep cruising.

Holbrook realizes a fan base can get spoiled by all the success and begin to take it for granted. But he just tries to keep his team competitive enough in the conference to reach the NCAA tournament, where every team has a puncher’s chance.

“You can finish seventh or eighth in this league and be playing in Nebraska in June,” he said. “You’ve got to keep that in perspective.”

Kendall Rogers, the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game, credits the various USC staffs for the long run of success and the ability of the coaches to build a balanced program with a mix of top prospects and solid team players.

The Gamecocks don’t lose too many players to the MLB draft out of high school, and they’ve kept some of their top players through their senior seasons, such as Michael Roth, Scott Wingo and Adrian Morales.

“A lot of their key players (on the championship teams) weren’t exactly top prospects out of high school. What that allows you to do is build more continuity,” Rogers said. “This year’s team is a prime example. This team doesn’t have a lot of prospects, but you know what? They win. You look at the teams that are successful in college baseball, and it’s usually the teams who recruit very smartly.”

Georgia’s struggles have perplexed Rogers, who admires coach Dave Perno and the talent level in Athens.

“It’s hard to say it’s all about coaching because you don’t get to the national championship if you’re a bad coach,” he said.

“It’s a little bit of bad luck as well as guys just not panning out. Last year, they had some pretty talented arms, but it didn’t pan out.”

But he also points to an X-factor that has kept USC on a roll but eluded the Bulldogs in recent seasons.

“They haven’t been able to build that team chemistry since they made that CWS run,” Rogers said. “If you don’t have that chemistry, you’re in trouble.”

The USC players understand good chemistry.

“We’re wearing the South Carolina jersey, and we have to uphold what we fight for,” senior third baseman Chase Vergason said. “We do what we can to take the ‘W.’ We pride ourselves on that (streak) a lot. Everybody does, seniors, juniors, even the younger freshmen that come in. That’s why we’ve been so successful.”

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WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 1 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Carolina Stadium

RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5

TV: Friday, SportSouth; Saturday, CSS; Sunday, SportSouth

SERIES: USC leads 58-49

LAST MEETING: The teams split two games last season

RECORDS: USC 34-14, 13-10 SEC; Georgia 18-28, 5-16

RANKINGS: USC is No. 15 in the Baseball America Top 25

PITCHING MATCHUPS: Friday, USC LHP Nolan Belcher, Sr., 6-5, 2.21 vs. Georgia RHP Sean McLaughlin, Fr., 4-5, 3.14; Saturday, USC LHP Jordan Montgomery, Soph., 3-1, 1.96 vs. Georgia LHP Blake Dieterich, Sr., 2-2, 2.59; Sunday, USC TBA vs. Georgia LHP Jared Walsh, Soph., 2-3, 2.05

NOTES: USC has 43 homers and 45 stolen bases, while Georgia has 25 homers and 23 stolen bases. … The Bulldogs have had three SEC games cancelled due to rain — one against Arkansas and two against Tennessee — over the past two weekends. … The Gamecocks have defeated Georgia nine times in 12 meetings over the past four seasons. … USC has allowed five runs or fewer in 39 of its 48 games this season, going 30-9.

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